|Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (photo by Mark Johnson)|
Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall: so went a common saying about this large Elizabethan country house. Built at a time when glass was exceptionally expensive, it was the pride of Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury, the richest woman in England after the Queen herself. If you look carefully in the photo above, you can see her initials ("ES," for Elizabeth Shrewsbury) atop many of the towers; she knew how to stake her claim. It's now a National Trust property, and Mark and I paid a visit to Hardwick Hall and its grounds on our trip to England in 2014. Portraits of its former residents, the country's monarchs, and other English notables grace the interior walls. If you get the opportunity to see it in person, go!
Elizabeth Fremantle’s The Girl in the Glass Tower delves into the life story of another Elizabethan woman who resided there, but whose story was more tragedy than triumph: Lady Arbella Stuart, granddaughter of both Bess of Hardwick and Margaret Douglas (Henry VIII’s niece). Though she's a minor figure now, for much of her lifetime Arbella was considered a likely successor to Elizabeth I. Her royal lineage proved to be a terrible burden. Other parties wrought conspiracies around her for their own ends, and her long-lived grandmother, Bess, kept her under tight control, ostensibly for her own protection. While some of Arbella’s decisions cost her dearly, Fremantle shows in no uncertain terms how her behavior was a natural result of the restrictive environment she endured.
Half of the novel comprises Arbella’s memoir, written in Jacobean times while incarcerated in the Tower of London, where she looks out on the courtyard from above, recollecting her too-short life, which comprises constant reminders of “the impossibility of freedom.” Her mother died when she was a child, and her female role models are few. Her aunt, Mary Queen of Scots, is executed as a traitor. An earlier potential successor to Elizabeth’s throne, the late Katherine Grey, had married against the Queen’s wishes and paid a great price.
|Hardwick Hall and gardens (photo by Mark Johnson)|
The stories of these women are threaded through the novel’s melancholy atmosphere; they haunt Arbella and remind her of their fate, which could also be hers.
Raised by Bess of Hardwick to be a future queen, Arbella grows up too aware of her position, leading to missteps that make her appear haughty. In this world of plots and counterplots political and religious, she does have loyal servants and loving relatives, but not everyone – family included – has her best interests at heart.
|Arbella Stuart, later in life|
The Girl in the Glass Tower is a deep, intimate exploration of a royal woman’s life. It was published by Michael Joseph (Penguin Random House UK) on June 2nd in hardback (£14.99, 453pp) and ebook.